In Selma Arts Center’s ‘Head Over Heels,’ siblings are happy to share non-binary perspectives
Editor’s note: In a previous version of this story, a gendered reference was made to I Adelficha. That version was corrected to the word “sibling.” The Munro Review regrets the error.
I’m sitting at a picnic table on the grounds of Pioneer Village in Selma talking to two people who play one person.
OK, so that’s a bit confusing, but stay with me. Interviewing two siblings who identify as non-binary (or are curious) — and who together play the first specific non-binary character written for Broadway — while presenting the results in written form takes more concentration than usual from the writer. (And the reader as well, so pay attention.)
So, to set the scene up, I am talking to Nwachukwu (preferred pronouns are she/her or they-them), who goes by just one name. She plays Pythio, the fortune-telling oracle in the Selma Arts Center production of “Head Over Heels.” (It plays through Sunday, July 25.). I am also talking to Nwachukwu’s sibling, who goes by the first name of “I” and last name of Adelficha. (Their preferred pronouns are they/them). I also plays Pythio, more specifically part of the oracle’s psyche. The character manifests itself as a snake.
This psychological interpretation is perfect for Adelficha, who graduated from Howard University with a degree in psychology (and then went on to Indiana University for a creative writing MFA). I Adelficha is matched in their intellectual curiosity by Nwachukwu, well known to local theater fans, who has just one more requirement left for her Fresno State undergraduate degree.
Together, they sat on a warm early evening before one of the last rehearsals of “Head Over Heels” — this took place the week of opening — to talk about what it’s like to “share” a role and how gender identity plays such an important role in this jukebox musical featuring the music of The Go-Go’s.
(I commonly write these in-person joint Q&A interviews using first names of all involved; from this point on, we have answers from “I” and “Nwachukwu.”)
DONALD: Tell me about Pythio, aka the Oracle.
NWACHUKWU: So, the premise of the show is that the family gets these prophecies. And the king decides, OK, we’re going to try to run from these prophecies. So the Oracle presents the prophecies and that is kind of throughout the show, paying attention in the background as things come true or don’t come true or come true in ways that we didn’t expect. And so the Oracle is kind of all seeing, like, “I know everything that’s going on, y’all think you can run from me, but you can’t.” And even when you think you have, you really haven’t.
DONALD: And, I, how do you describe your role?
I: I would say I’m more like a part of the Oracle psyche. Pythio’s identity is pluralistic. So I get to be the embodiment of part of the Oracle’s identity. When these prophecies come true, I’m the figure who drops the symbolic flag each time.
DONALD: Do you have actual lines?
I: I never speak.
DONALD: You’re an added character.
NWACHUKWU: In terms of the snake in the original production, the character was a big prop snake that came down from the ceiling. We don’t have a ceiling because we’re outdoors.
I: (My character) resulted from a meeting to solve a logistical problem. And from there, it became kind a creative, “a-ha” moment. So I was originally just going to be a pit singer. I was going to be up with the band, providing support for the vocals. And even as Michael (Flores, the director) was conceptualizing the snake as a character to be added into the show, he was originally going to cast one of the Arcadians (unnamed members of the royal court) to play that character. But seeing my participation as I joined in vocal rehearsals, as well as seeing the real-life relationship between Nwachuku and I … that is where the creative spark happened for me to play the role of the snake. There’s an intimacy that exists because we’re siblings, right? And that gets to play out on stage as well.
DONALD: Do you have a costume that literally depicts you as a snake?
I: Oh, yeah. I’ve got a great glowing snake head and lots of long scales that cover my body. The audience is gonna know who I am for sure.
DONALD: Tell me about the songs. Were you big Go-Go’s fans before?
I: I would say a passive fan, you know?
DONALD: You didn’t minor in Go-Go’s.
NWACHUKWU: Not at all. (laughs)
DONALD: I always think of jukebox musicals as falling into two categories. One includes “Jersey Boys,” which is a biographical journey, fitting the songs in as part of charting the evolution of a musical group. Others, like “Mamma Mia,” are just incredibly clever ways of taking the songs and turning them into a narrative.
NWACHUKWU: I say the latter for this one. All of these Go-Go’s songs I would jam along to, but then, listening to the words, I’m, like, “Oh, yeah, they’re really saying something there.” Seeing it within the context of the show itself, there are meanings to these words.
DONALD: Can you talk more about the Oracle as a non-binary character? Is that similar to what was in the Broadway version?
NWACHUKWU: Yes, this is the first Broadway show to have a character that specifically is designated as non-binary.
DONALD: Does your character acknowledge that onstage?
NWACHUKWU: They do. They unabashedly explain their identity, and the characters in the show refer to them with they/them pronouns.
DONALD: In real life, Nwachukwu, do you identify as non-binary?
NWACHUKWU: I’m on a journey. Labels are important. And if they’re not needed, then that’s OK, as well. For me, I’m at a point where I’m in a very liminal state when it comes to my gender identity. I know that in terms of the binary, “she/her” does not fully describe who I am as a person. And I have not settled on a label for who I am.
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DONALD: I’d like to ask you, I, the same question.
I: I identify as “gender unconcerned,” which is to say that gender is not a part of my identity. Being black is important to me. Being queer is important to me. Gender is not important to me. You know, like, I’m an Earthling, but I don’t identify as an Earthling. It just happens to be what I am. So, my biological sex, I have no problem with it, but gender is not something that I actively identify with. So gender unconcerned is where I am.
DONALD: Why do you think the creators of the musical wrote this character and made them non-binary? Is there something particularly about the Go-Go’s music that frames that or sets that up? Or do you think the writers were just saying it’s time to do this?
I: I don’t know what the creators of the show had in mind, but it does feel to me very timely. Pythio (the Oracle) as non-binary wasn’t always a part of this production, and was written in down the line. I think it’s a symbol of the speed at which LGBTQIA+ issues and conversations are gaining importance and prominence. We’re evolving in this realm really quickly. Even from the beginning of the show being written to when it ended up on Broadway, having that character added in seemed important.
DONALD: What do you think this will be like for younger people to go to a show like this and see these kinds of characters?
NWACHUKWU: I think it’ll be exciting. Fun, and affirming.
I: And normalizing.
NWACHUKWU: That’s a good word. What I like about the show is that it (being non-binary) is part of the character’s identity. But it’s not all that they are.